Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Cool, Loner Reagan

Biographer Edmund Morris has an interesting column in the WaPo about Ronald Reagan, describing five myths about him and the opposing truth.  I thought three and four were particularly fascinating:
3. He was warm-hearted.

No. But Reagan wasn't cold - except in his detestation of totalitarianism - so much as cool, in the way a large, calm lake is cool. Like many another natural leader (George Marshall and Charles de Gaulle come to mind), he viewed those who clustered around him abstractedly. He registered audiences rather than individuals. Reagan intimates have confessed to me that they were never sure he knew who the hell they were.

His three younger children have publicly stated that there were times (decades before any rumors of dementia) when he treated them as complete strangers. As for his marriage to Nancy, I'll note only that she was the fourth short, tough, street-smart woman he dreamily depended on to organize his everyday life, the others being his mother, Nelle Reagan; his first fiancee, Margaret Cleaver; and his first wife, Jane Wyman. He had no close friends. And until young Ron reminded him, it didn't occur to him to put a headstone on either of his parents' graves.

4. He was only a campaign Christian.

On the contrary, Reagan was a "practical Christian," that being the name of a mainly Midwestern, social-work-oriented movement when he was growing up. At 11, young Dutch had an epiphany, prompted by the sight of his alcoholic father lying dead drunk on the front porch of the family house in Dixon, Ill. In a moving passage of autobiography, Reagan wrote: "Seeing his arms spread out as if he were crucified - as indeed he was - his hair soaked with melting snow, snoring as he breathed, I could feel no resentment against him." It was the season of Lent, and his mother, a devotee of the Disciples of Christ, put a comforting novel in his hand: "That Printer of Udell's" by Harold Bell Wright. Dutch read it and told her, "I want to declare my faith and be baptized." He was, by total immersion, on June 21, 1922.

I read a speckled copy of that book in the Library of Congress. Almost creepily, it tells the story of a handsome Midwestern boy who makes good for the sins of his father by becoming a practical Christian and a spellbinding orator. He develops a penchant for brown suits and welfare reform, marries a wide-eyed girl (who listens adoringly to his speeches) and wins election to public office in Washington.

Shy about his faith as an adult, Reagan was capable of conventional pieties like all American politicians. He attended few church services as president. But on occasion, before critical meetings, you would see him draw aside and mumble prayers.

No comments:

Post a Comment